You would think that sidewalks are meant for walking. At least that’s how it works in western countries. But in Asia this is not necessarily true. Although I have observed this in some other Asian countries as well, let’s talk about Thailand, because that’s where I live.
Sidewalks are often not very pretty affairs in Thailand. However I want to make a few things clear:
- Not all sidewalks in Thailand look like what you will see here. But quite a few of them do.
- This is not meant to be a criticism of Thailand. I live here and I really like this country. I am just pointing out some unusual facts of life which are quite different from what you are used to in the western world.
- Sometimes you just have to look at the humorous side on life.
Tall persons watch out in Thailand!
The first thing you have to watch out for is obstacles that will smack you right in the head if you don’t pay attention. I call it “Thai size”, since the Thais are generally much shorter than westerners.
When I walk around with my Thai wife, she will often warn me about some “Thai size” obstacle like a low roof, sun shade, shop front, door way etc. The Thais pass under them without any problems, but for us tall fellows – better watch out!
Low doors can be especially dangerous. Often the main entrance door to your hotel room will be full size, but the bathroom door is “Thai size”.
When you forget this, and you get up during the night, half asleep, to relieve yourself, you can ruin the rest of the night quite easily when you smack your forehead against the low frame of the bathroom door.
The picture above is the bathroom door in my hotel room in Trang, Thailand. You can just imagine what happens if I don’t duck every time.
Watch out where you put your feet!
There are lots of things that can obstruct your path higher up, endangering your head. But there are plenty of obstacles lower down as well.
Other things to watch out for are holes and cracks in the sidewalk, or sudden gaps or drops in the surface.
It’s a great exercise to keep you on your toes and sharpen your perceptive abilities.
Why is this sidewalk blocked?
You have two choices – either you go into the beauty salon, or you step into the road and make sure you don’t get hit by a car.
Thai drivers are used to pedestrians on the road and won’t get mad at you. They won’t even think that you shouldn’t be on the road. But this doesn’t mean you won’t get hit.
If the advertising sign is not enough to block the sidewalk, you can always park a whole bunch of motorcycles behind it to make sure nobody gets through.
Sidewalks are one of the favorite parking spots where the Thais prefer to park their motorbikes. Pedestrians beware.
Thais are used to such blockades, and nobody would ever complain. People just walk around those obstacles.
It’s a matter of expectations. In the western world pedestrians assume they have a right to the sidewalk, but not so in Thailand.
Let’s face it – it makes sense. If you are hungry and stumble right into a restaurant which blocks your path, you might as well go ahead and eat something. I think for a marketing strategy this totally rocks!
Another favorite method of preventing you from progressing in a straight line on the sidewalk is the multitude of vendors who either extend their shop out into the sidewalk or who set up their entire shop on a sidewalk. Excellent strategy – the shop is right in your face.
This might not be quite legal, even in Thailand, but having laws and enforcing them are two very different scenarios. The enforcement side is often not very strict in Thailand.
Putting out old construction material and other junk on the sidewalk and leaving it there permanently is also a workable system of turning the sidewalk into an obstacle path or forcing you out into the street.
Thais have a word to deal with such situations. It’s called “maipenrai”, meaning “it’s no big deal, it doesn’t matter, it’s ok, don’t worry about it, take it easy, etc.” This word, combined with some patience, will open many doors for you in Thailand.
Concrete benches across the sidewalk will generally deter even the most determined straight-walker, unless of course you are in such good shape that you can just jump over them in order to pursue your straight path.
You always have the option of interrupting your dogged determination to get to your target in a straight line via the sidewalk which you feel entitled to, and just sit down on the bench for a while.
It’s natural, I admit it. The plants might even look pretty, but they still totally block the sidewalk. At least to me, their placement defies any logic, but I guess someone must have given some thought to placing them there.
In conclusion you just have to give up your idea that sidewalks in Thailand are meant for you to walk on and nothing else. You will have to get used to ducking in front of Thai sized obstacles which endanger your head. And you will have to get used to stepping out into the traffic since the sidewalk is blocked – again! Maipenrai!
The author, Shama Kern, is one of tens of thousands of expats who have made Thailand their home.
He lives with his Thai wife in Chiang Mai and can be reached at email@example.com
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